Symposium | A Decade Squandered

From Ground Zero to Tahrir Square

By Avishai Margalit

Tagged Arab SpringMiddle East

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, recently made three interesting claims: The Arab Spring is more of a defining event of our time than 9/11; the Arab Spring was “the answer to some of the anger of 9/11, the violence of 9/11”; and “the real nature of the Arab world is expressed in Tahrir Square, not at Ground Zero.”

I don’t subscribe to the talk about the “real nature” of the Arab world. There is no real nature to the Arab world or for that matter to any other human world. Yet Hague is making an important point: Tahrir Square and Ground Zero are (partly) manifestations of the same kind of anger. The havoc wreaked on Ground Zero was grossly and cruelly misplaced anger, while the protests in the square represented an anger properly directed at a tyrant.

Hague is gambling on the truth of the claim that the Arab Spring is historically more important than 9/11. The tendency is of course to play it safe and echo Zhou Enlai’s famous line in answering the question whether the French Revolution was a success: It is too early to tell.

But I think that Hague’s gamble is worth taking. I gave a talk in the Bay Area a few days after the February revolution in Egypt. Are you optimistic? I was asked worriedly. My answer was: If you are invited to a wedding by a young couple, you probably arrive in a festive mood to celebrate the hope of a new beginning. You barely feel like bombarding the young hopefuls with statistics about the local rate of divorce. Revolution, like marriage, is the triumph of hope over experience, and revolution, like marriage, should be celebrated as long as there is ground for hope. In Egypt and Tunisia, there is still ground for hope.

I shall duck for the most part the question about optimism and pessimism with regard to the Arab Spring and instead pose another question: Why were the Arab revolutions, especially in Egypt, such a shocking surprise to almost all who care?

Here is my claim: We are in the grip of an idea about revolutions. The idea is the Bolshevik model (or the Jacobin one, if we go back in time), according to which a revolution worth its salt is the outcome of a centralized organization that acts under a unified command. A revolution is not the outcome of spontaneous social forces with diffused organization on divergent wills; it is too serious a matter to leave to amateurs. This idea is dubious when applied to Russia in 1917, let alone to other revolutions. It holds true for Russia’s October Revolution, but it does not hold true for Russia’s February Revolution. The latter, like those in Egypt and Tunisia this year, lacked a central organization.

There are similarities between the two Februaries. The February Revolution in Russia forced out the czar and ended the rule of his dynasty, much like the February revolution in Egypt ended the rule of Mubarak and the dynastic succession he was about to oversee. A coalition of liberals and socialists started Russia’s February Revolution, which carried with it the hope of replacing the autocratic czarist regime with a democratically elected constitutional assembly. The forces that brought about the February revolution in Egypt were also varied, even more so than the ones in Russia. The events of the February Revolution in Russia were mainly concentrated in the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), just like the events in Egypt were mainly concentrated in the capital, Cairo. And as in Russia, the crucial moment in Egypt’s revolution came when the army refused to shoot at demonstrators.

But I would like to dwell on one analogous feature in particular: the relatively spontaneous nature of the revolutions in both cases, in contrast to the organized Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. Granted, there were opposition groups in Egypt—as in Russia—that had a certain degree of organization: Several Egyptian groups, such as the “April 6 Youth Movement” or “We Are All Khaled Said,” used social media as their organizational tool. Others, like the “Youth of the Muslim Brothers,” were organized by low-tech means. And then of course there were the liberal backers of Mohamed ElBaradei, trying to make him the Kerensky of the February revolution. The most interesting groups, however, were the ones that escaped the media spotlight altogether. They were the fanatic supporters of Cairo’s top two rival soccer teams: Al-Ahly and Al-Zamalek. These groups had long experience in confronting the police. Each match between the two ended ritualistically with violent skirmishes with the police as well as altercations with each other. Yet in Tahrir Square they stood together, facing down the thugs that the Mubarak regime had unleashed on the demonstrators.

Until Mubarak stepped down there wasn’t one speaker who addressed the protestors at Tahrir Square as a whole. The first speaker to do so was Yusuf al-Qaradawi, arguably the most influential religious authority in the Islamic world today, who returned from exile to conduct the Friday prayers in Cairo. The event gave the impression that the organized force awaiting an October-like revolution in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was behind al-Qaradawi’s appearance. I stress this element of spontaneity because hardly anyone believed that a revolution in Egypt was possible without a centralized force and a unified command. The importance of the “street” in the Arab world has long existed, yet it was viewed mainly as an inert mass and not as an organism. Sure, the “street” may protest from time to time but only over such issues as the government’s removing subsidies for essentials like flour or oil. Friends and foes of the Arab regimes shared the belief that a high degree of centralized organization was needed in order to mobilize people against the regimes and that only the Muslim Brotherhood, if anyone, was in a position to provide such an organization.

It is this conceptual bias—informed by an idea that a revolution can take place only along the lines of the organized October Revolution in Russia and neglecting the possibility of a diffused uprising like Russia’s February Revolution—that was responsible for the element of extreme surprise in Tunisia and Egypt. It is still an open question whether a diffused, February-like revolution could bring about a structural social change or whether such a revolution is a mere spectacle—nothing more than an uplifting momentary event. There is something disturbingly true about the Bolshevik idea: Namely, that spontaneous revolutions—or, rather, loosely organized revolutions—eventually tend to yield to organized forces that usurp the original revolution. Will a centralized force like the Muslim Brotherhood usurp the revolution and turn it into an October-like revolution? It is too early to tell. We are still in the wake of a hopeful February.

What can we realistically hope for in Egypt, then? I believe that there is a good chance that Egypt will adopt a regime that would resemble that of present-day Turkey. By that I do not mean the former secularist Kemalist Turkey, but the Turkey that is led by the Islamic AK Party—with the same kind of uneasy deal between the army and the civil society as exists in Egypt. A regime like that has its problems, no doubt, but it is better than the Mubarak regime.

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Avishai Margalit is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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